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Football University - The Coming Storm (Magic 3)

Welcome to another installment of Football University

Today we take a look at the next evolution in football, which is the emergence of the TE, the elimination of the FB, and the coming of the feared 3 TE systems and formations.

Last week we discussed the 3 major steps in the progression of football.

  1. The forward pass (a play innovation)
  2. Allowing OL to extend hands and arms (a rule change)
  3. The West Coast Offense and the Cover-2 counters (systems)
Step number four in the march of football ideas may very well be a change in positions.  Just as the flankers and wings of yesteryear vanished, and the original FB became a QB, the change in the future will be dramatic.  The FB will vanish, WRs will ba halved in numbers, and the TEs will become the center of the game.

Click "Read More" below to enter the class.  Enjoy!

Before we go much further, please read the following link from The Sporting News:

Here are some thoughts I wrote about that article:

The article say a lot of nice things about Tony Scheffler while discussing the discovery of TEs as a valuable commodity.  But for now, consider this:

  1. The evolution of football is such that TEs should be becoming more prominent.  The last great offensive system craze was the "west coast offense".  It was countered by teams running versions of the "cover two".  The answer to the cover two isn't so much a scheme, but a position.  TEs are almost designed to operate in the seam, which is the weak area of the cover two systems.
  2. Most TEs either block well or catch well, but all have to do both to some extent.  Can't block?  You'd better be a darn good catcher or you can't be a reciever.  Can't catch?  You'd better be a darn good blocker or you won't get on a team as an o-lineman.  The few TEs who do both exceedingly well are a danger to any team.  Few things scare a defensive coach than having to guess if the TE is blocking or going for a pass.  It can't be schemed for, because you can only guess.  The guessing becomes a nightmare when two or three solid TEs are on a team.
Mark my words.  TE is the wave of the future in the NFL.  It started a couple of years ago, and is gaining in momentum.  When I was coaching I looked at TEs the way most people looked at safety before the dawn of guys like Dawkins and Reed.  Now the position is becoming a major tool.  There has always been a few rare exceptional TEs (Sharpe anyone?).  But with the approaches to football in defensive scheming the last few years the TE figures to be a new powerful weapon.

Let's be grateful for Scheffler and Graham.  And while it is a shame to see Alexander probably unable to return next year (he's IR right now), perhaps Jackson will give us the magic "three TE set" most offensive theorists only dream about.  Consider also that Mustard looked good in a dual role at the end of '07.

At that time Styg50 wrote a great question/comment:

Do you see any organizations that are buying this evolutionary idea?  Obviously Denver has strong roots in the West coast offense, so I would guess that Shanny has a somewhat decent grasp, at the very least, of what is the system's weak points.  And Denver has been this close to fielding the "magic of three."  But do you think it is a matter of course, that is, players come and go, and we happen to be caught in a cycle where some of our best talent happens to be TE?  Or is it a conscientous choice?  

I look around the league, and I see outdated notions of the TEs effectiveness (KC), as well as attempts to line the TE up like a dual threat WR (IND, BAL, CLE, etc.)  What are the indicators that a team is looking at the TE in the light your speaking of?  Do they want to use particular formations to disguise passing?  Are they using more or less motion to achieve matchups and get defensive clues?

I have been thinking about Shanahan's 'style' of system, and I have been thinking about the nature of offensive zone-blocking.  I came to the conclusion that Shanahan sees the role of the offensive system as something where the emphasis is on execution, and secondarily scheming.  In other words, he favors a system where if the players do it right, i.e. the way they do it in practice, than it doesn't matter what the defense does, or how they adjust, you will still be highly successful.  I suppose you could contrast this with a system that puts players in certain positions to read certain keys, and then organically changes via the what the coach is able to see.  Obviously, the latter happens all the time, even with Shanahan, and scheming is still an imortant ingredient to success.  But it seems that Shanny is primarily interested in fielding a system that when executed properly will beat anyone...

I am probably generalizing way too much.  Maybe you could set me straight on that, as I don't think I am being very clear...

At this point I want to share with you the answer I gave at that time, followed by diagrams of plays to illustrate the lethality of the Magic 3.  I've also added some additional thoughts to further flesh out the 3TE approach.


The history of the TE was pretty boring until the 80s.  At that point Joe Gibbs schemed in an additional TE for QB protection.  Before that, the role of the TE as simply block and (rarely) catch.  In ancient history it was simply to block.

Then came the 90's and more emphasis on catching.  Our own S. Sharpe took the position to newer and better places.  In fact, the AFC West has enjoyed elites at this position for awhile (and that may have a little to do with AFC West dominance in many years), including Gates and Gonzales.  Shockey has been a threat for the NYG.

In the (recent) past teams haven't emphasised the position for a simple reason.  Why get a guy whose specialty isn't catching?  Let's leave the catching to our WRs and give the QB added time to pass with a blocking TE.  Also (until the position continues to catch on) you'll find most TE archtypes in basketball programs, not college (Gates and Gonzales were basketball products).

But the TE has a future in the league for several reasons that have washed together like a perfect storm.

First, the "cover two" system on defense gains in popularity each year.  It is one of the very few systems that is designed to counter the popular "west coast offense".  But the TE position (because of alignment next to the tackle, and the physical build of a TE) ends up in the dangerous "seam", where the cover-two is weakest.  By the time an opposing defender gets to the TE he has already taken a couple of steps, and is a physical mismatch for the likely swift safeties trying to bring him down.

Second, teams have discovered the many "smoke and mirrors" that can be accomplished with a TE.  Line him up next to the RT and defenses don't know if he is going to block or catch (historic).  But NOW when a defensive coordinator sees the offense bring in two WRs and one TE he is likely to send in a 4-3 defense.  Maybe he should have brought in a third CB because teams (like SD) might line up the TE in the slot!  If the poor coordinator calls a nickle for the next formation (3 CBs) the QB audibles to a run, and the TE lines up (or motions) to the RT.  In other words, an elite TE ensures a mismatch until a defensive theorist develops a new formation or a new LB archtype.

Third, the recent move by many teams to return to the old 3-4 creates a special opportunity for TEs.  The danger with the 3-4 is picking up the blitz.  With a two TE set the blockers are already up to the line and facing each OLB.  Threat nuetralized.  But with two TE sets we quadruple the number of diguised packages the team has available on offense, and with motions, we create a playbook fatter than consideration of all of the other positions combined.

Fourth, teams have discovered that in two TE sets they can compound-multiply the formations and abilities of an offense with alignments never before seen (the revolution has reached this fourth point in the last couple of years, but it still hasn't completly caught on and been fleshed out).  No one would have ever lined up or motioned a TE from the line back to a RB position.  But it's starting to happen (Denver started the craze of motioning a TE to a FB position on plays a few years ago.  The TE can now run block, or fake a screen set up while the QB boots to the opposite side).  More and more the TEs in two sets (or even "twins" with both overloading one side) compound confusion by motioning one TE (the max allowed by the rules) to a slot, near the QB, or to the other side of the line.  Is this a heavy run play with three blockers, or a massive pass attack with 5 total eligable and capable receivers?!?  Does the defensive coordinator send in a 4-3, or a dime (or even a quarter)?  No matter what he does, the offense can audible.  Scary.  But that isn't the doomsday scenario.

Fifth, the "magic 3 TE theory".

Because competition for TEs isn't harsh right now, and because only a few teams are taking part in the revolution, and because the advanced TE theories haven't trickled down to colleges and even high schools (who have yet to go out of their way to recruit and scheme for the new TE type), it is possible for a very few teams to get the "magic three".  Most teams STILL see the TE as nothing more than a safety valve, and look at WRs as the "go to" receivers.

"This is the construct.", Morpheus (The Matrix)  

Five o-linemen and a QB.  One RB and one WR (weakside).  Three TEs to the strongside.  For years this formation has been discussed over drinks by coaches as the "dream" or "magic" second coming of classical football.  The day when football comes full circle and returns to the 1930s and 40s.  The day when an offense is run the way it was always meant to run, but with the modern twist of the forward pass and advanced theories learned for the last century.  Many coaches believe this formation will be the future of football, and revolutionize the way the game is played.  Defensive coordinators like me consider it a nightmare.  It will throw most defensive theory out of the window until a counter can be developed.  Why is the formation considered by football theorists to be magic?

The formation looks like a goal line formation.  The only way to stop the run is to (likewise) set up a goal line defense.  But what happens when those three TEs (all a half step back from the line) are eligible to catch the ball?  The subtle tricks are just as dangerous.  Let's say an opposing team lines up at least one CB to cover on of the TEs.  in a run play that CB probably gets knocked on his butt.  Not impressed yet?

How about this.  In the formation there is still room for motion.  There is also room for one or more of the TEs to line up wide.  How about one wide, one slot, one back with the RB, then a motion brings the wide in against the line?  All of a sudden a pass defense with multiple DBs faces a "jumbo" run play.

The new formations and the new approach would revolutionize many aspects of football.  For example, most teams might have one very good CB in a formation (to go against the WR), but place more emphasis on a CB/LB hybrid player to match with TEs on the line.  The safety position would likewise problably drop to one on the field.  The FB would vanish all together.  TEs who further specialize might become "wings" instead of "TEs".  The TE and RB become the emphasis in offense, not the QB or WR.  "Wings" would not only catch and block like modern TEs, but run and block, further leading to confusion.

Another drastic change forseen is that the emphasis would change from "run vs. pass" on offenses to "power vs. finesse".  The new system could be run as a powerfull smash mouth tool, or it could rely on deception and timing.

Would it take over the NFL and displace other systems?  

No, it would not.  Even the great "west coast system" is only run by a third of modern NFL teams.  As defensive masterminds dig up their century old playbooks to find clues as to how to stop the "magic 3", other teams will force defensive coaches not to overcompensate.  If a defense is now built (in personel and play book) to counter the "3", it won't now be as effective against the current systems.

Several teams have a good TE for the future.  A few have two (Denver).  One team is close to getting to three (PITT), but isn't there yet.  That PITT is doing as well as they are (just behind NE and INDY) is a testement that they are moving in the right direction, as well as a recent SB victory.  But they still haven't fully implemented the system.  Because they use the "erhardt-perkins" system (a smash mouth system) they are positioned take advantage of the "three TEs" if their new head coach continues in the direction of Cowher.

In Denver's first game this year, for the first few plays, Mike flirted with it for Denver.  He then switched to conventional ball.  It's on his mind.  Mike is a lot of fun though.  He's also played around with the old "option" plays seen in college too.  My guess is that Mike would run a finesse system, while a team like PITT might run the smash mouth version.

Notably, the Patriots used the 3TE for a series in the last regular season game in '07 against the NYGs.

Who is trying it?

PITT is trying to move to the "3", as is Denver.  Other teams approach it and flirt with it.

Is it done on purpose, or do teams realize they have the personnel?

Both.  Most teams don't want an extra "safety valve" when they can get something better.  But when a team realizes they have a dangerous duo they seem to want to scheme them in.  On the other hand, Mike and Bill (Cowher) seem to have been loading up on TEs more than other teams, even though they haven't gone all out (both teams have run a few three TEs in games, perhaps experimenting).

Let's take a look at some plays.  The first play is an isolation pass play.  The concept is to spread out the defense and get as many 1:1 match-ups as possible.

Here we see the WR and the 2TE streak deep.  The 1TE and the RB bolt for opposite sides, and the 3TE takes his defender (likely a CB) towards the center of the field.  If the defense is in zone they have to hope that every zone is covered.  This is not likely, since the offense will have been pounding the ball with a goal line looking foramtion for several plays.

But what if the defense goes man?

This looks complicated, but don't worry.  The black arrows are the pass routes, the red arrows are the defensive counters, and the blue circles show who is covering whom.  Note that I've also enclosed (in each blue circle) the ratio of defenders to receivers.

This is how the play turns out, assuming the defense reads the play and reacts idealy (not likely in any play).

The WR streak gets covered by the CB and the FS, who moves to stop the deep threat.  The 2TE takes the SAM LB deep on a streak (a probable mismatch in speed).  The SS has to break strongside to cover this streak threat.

Now we have the center of the field cleared where the 3TE takes the other CB.  If the defense has been getting run into the ground the 3TE is probably being covered by a 4th LB much slower than a CB.  The coverage is one on one.

The 1TE takes the MLB to the right edge of the field, one on one.  The RB takes the WILL to the left sideline, one on one.

Other (more likely) pass plays include screens to the strong side (where the three TEs are already blocking downfield), as well as multiple strong side floods (where receivers crowd an area).

How about the run game plays?  Let's take another look at the base 3TE formation.

In the above diagram, the 1TE can line up behind the RG, behind and centered to the RG/RT, or behind the RT.  The 3TE can motion to any of the spots just mentioned.  As the OL zoneblocks with a rightward slant, the TEs nearest the line join the zone, while TEs behind the line look for opponents to take out (much like a FB would).

The opponent's WILL has to line up near the LT to account for the rare running play that goes weakside, so he is out of the play.  The 3TE is likely run blocking a CB, and this is a mismatch.

There are more potential formation combinations that proceed from motions in a 3TE formation than any other formation in football.  Because of the dual role of the TE position, the formations become more difficult to adjust to.  Here's a simple example.  Looking at the above diagram, picture the 1TE motioning to the right sideline before the play.  Question: Does the defense

  1. Take the CB on the 3TE out to cover the 1TE, while switching the MLB to one of the remaining TEs (leaving the SAM to figure out his coverage), or
  2. Have the MLB follow his man all the way to the edge of the field, leaving the middle of the formation exposed to a run.
Again, like with all other plays, the QB simply audibles based on what the defense does.  In the first case the audible is for a deep pass to the #3, now uncovered by the CB.  In the second case the offense rushes the center, the defense now missing the MLB.

Another possibility is to line up the 3TE wide or slot.  The defense preps for a pass, but the 3TE motions up against the 2TE (who is against the RT).  Uh oh, jumbo run formation.

I've only touched on very basic and extreme examples.  In the hands of a coach actually drawing up plays the mismatches can be further exploited, the formations expanded on, and the obligatory motions improved on.  The bottom line is that whatever the defense shows, the audible takes the play in the completly opposite direction.

As stated earlier, coaches from offices to pubs to seminars have used the Magic 3 as a puzzle for defensive coaches to ponder.  The day that a team has the depth at TE and the courage to move beyond the current experiments we see here and there (and more and more), that will be the day that defensive coordinators fear most.


Next week, a look at the '08 defensive system under Slowik for the Broncos.

Any questions about the Magic 3 or any facet of football Xs and Os, fire away!  Remember, this is a safe place to ask questions.  If you are just learning the game this is a safe place to ask.  Take care!